Working this week on a global leaders strategy programme I was reminded of the fleas and the jar experiment. I am sure you are familiar but in case not let me explain. It turns out that in spite of their size fleas are canny creatures. When placed in a jar without a lid, very quickly, they will all jump out. When they are placed in the same jar but now the jar has a lid, after a little banging of their heads on the ceiling, they quickly learn to jump just below the height of the lid. This is all fine until the lid is removed. Instead of jumping to freedom, as before, these fleas continue to jump to a height just below the lid even though the barrier clearly isn’t there anymore.
I love this story and have heard it used to describe many situations, but for our programme it seemed particularly prophetic. It concerned groups of very senior people unable seemingly to demonstrate the kind of creativity and breadth of thinking desired by their senior leaders. Not unusual you might say, but where this becomes particularly interesting from the flea perspective is that the organization has recently undergone a cultural transformation. They now operate in a jar that values and rewards creativity and innovation, that favours a test and learn design approach to developing new products and a willingness to take risks. Increasingly it resembles the jar without the lid yet just like the fleas these senior people are unable to alter their behaviour.
There are a multitude of solutions for this but from our “Enabling Genius” perspective it starts, we think, with raising awareness of the importance of mindset, or what we call “Stance”(1). It is important for leaders to understand how they view their world (open or close jar) and hence how high they feel it is safe to, or indeed worth, jumping. Its important for them to recognise the impact that their Stance can have on their behaviour and therefore on the outcomes that they get. It is also important to recognise that their Stance is their filter, so even though the lid may have been removed, if you perceive it’s still there then you will unconsciously filter in data that supports this view and miss contrary data that is often clear to others.
In addition the senior leaders in this organization should not under estimate the time it takes for the fleas to recognise the lid has been removed. A time that can be significantly reduced by behaviours that consistently and explicitly signal the change.
In closing, I guess for all of us this raises an interesting question; where are the lids in your life?
(1) “The Opposable Mind”, Roger Martin